Islamic Arts Biennale: Awwal Bait
23.01.2023 – 23.04.2023
In its inaugural edition, the Islamic Arts Biennale brings together centuries of faith and artistic expression. Taking centre stage at the iconic Hajj Terminal of King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, the Biennale celebrates cultural, intellectual, and artistic achievements that trace their origins to the House of Allah, Awwal Bait (“First House”).
Creative and Curatorial Team
Each member brings to the Biennale their unique experience and perspective in showcasing the meaning and beauty of the two holy cities, Makkah al-Mukarramah and al-Madinah al-Munawwarah, for Muslims around the globe.
Dr Omniya Abdel Barr
A conservation architect and historian of Islamic art and architecture, Dr Abdel Barr is a Barakat Trust Fellow at the V&A, and Head of Development at the Egyptian Heritage Rescue Foundation. Full Bio
Dr Saad Alrashid
A leading Saudi scholar, and the author of a comprehensive book that chronicles Darb Zubaydah, one of the most important pilgrimage routes across the Arabian Peninsula since the days of early Islam. He also works on archaeological sites across this trail. Full Bio
Dr Julian Raby
From 2002 to 2017, Dr Raby served as Director of the National Museum of Asian Art – Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, he lectured on Islamic Art at the University of Oxford for 22 years. Full Bio
AlMadar: Collections meet Connections
Arabic for ‘the orbit’, AlMadar is a satellite exhibition held in conjunction with the Islamic Arts Biennale, and serves to open doors to future partnerships and collaborations.
This year’s edition starts by paying homage to patron Sheikh Nasser Al-Sabah (1948–2020) and celebrates 40 years of the seminal al-Sabah Collection, Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah, Kuwait. Alongside this, objects from around the world are displayed in an unprecedented mingling of institutional collections from Mali, Egypt, Tunisia, Greece, Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Oman, and Qatar.
Finally, to embrace the significance of the Biennale taking place at the iconic Hajj Terminal, visitors are invited to explore how the innovative structure came to life—both in its journey from design concept to physical structure, and in its embrace by millions of pilgrims—and why it remains a testament to Saudi Arabia’s dynamic and forward-looking energy.
Igshaan Adams (South Africa)
Leen Ajlan (Saudi Arabia)
Reem Al Faisal (Saudi Arabia)
Adel Al Quraishi (Saudi Arabia)
Nasser Al Salem (Saudi Arabia)
Noura Al Sayeh-Holtrop (Palestine)
Sarah Alabdali (Saudi Arabia)
Rund Alarabi (Sudan)
Nora Alissa (Saudi Arabia)
Moath Alofi (Saudi Arabia)
Farah Behbahani (Kuwait)
Sultan Bin Fahad (Saudi Arabia)
M’barek Bouhchichi (Morocco)
Sarah Brahim (Saudi Arabia)
Bricklab (Saudi Arabia)
Lubna Chowdhary (Tanzania/United Kingdom)
Civil Architecture (Bahrain – Kuwait)
DAL – Digital Arts Lab (Saudi Arabia)
Abdelrahman Elshahed (Egypt)
Alia Farid (Kuwait/Puerto Rico)
Basmah Felemban (Saudi Arabia)
Iheb Guermazi (Tunisia)
Haroon Gunn-Salie (South Africa)
Ziad Jamaleddine / L.E FT Architects (Lebanon)
Idris Khan (United Kingdom)
Yasmeen Lari (Pakistan)
Huda Lutfi (Egypt)
Ahmed Mater (Saudi Arabia)
Haroon Mirza (United Kingdom)
Joseph Namy (United States/Lebanon)
Moataz Nasr (Egypt)
Beya Othmani (Tunisia)
Yazid Oulab (Algeria)
Shahpour Pouyan (Iran)
Kamruzamman Shadin (Bangladesh)
Wael Shawky (Egypt)
Muhannad Shono (Saudi Arabia)
Dima Srouji (Palestine)
Studio Bound (Saudi Arabia)
SYN Architects (Saudi Arabia)
James Webb (South Africa)
Ayman Yossri Daydban (Saudi Arabia)
Ayman Zedani (Saudi Arabia)
Fatiha Zemmouri (Morocco)
Soukaina Aboulaoula (Morocco)
Principal of the award-winning architecture and research firm, Counterspace—Vally’s design, research and pedagogical practice is searching for expression for hybrid identities and territory, particularly for African and Islamic conditions—both rooted and diasporic. Her design process is often forensic, and draws on the aural, performance and the overlooked as generative places of history and work.
In 2022, Vally was selected by the World Economic Forum to be one of its Young Global Leaders, a community of the world’s most promising artists, researchers, entrepreneurs, activists, and political leaders, and, as a TIME100 Next list honouree, has been identified as someone who will shape the future of architectural practice and canon. She recently joined the World Monuments Fund Board of Directors, and serves on several boards through her interest in dynamic forms of archive, embodied heritage and supporting new networks of knowledge in the arts.
In 2019, Counterspace was invited to design the 20th Serpentine Pavilion in London, making Vally the youngest architect ever to win this internationally renowned commission. With the Serpentine, she has initiated and developed a new fellowship program, Support Structures for Support Structures, which assists artists and collectives working at the intersection of art with social justice, the archive, and ecology. Vally is currently collaborating on the design of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development in Monrovia, Liberia, the first presidential library dedicated to a female head of state, where she will oversee the scenography, pavilions, and exhibition spaces. She is also working on a garden and gathering place commemorating the 5th Pan- African Congress held in Manchester, UK, in 1945.
Sumayya’s practice operates adjacent to the academy. For 6 years (2015-2021), she led the masters’ studio, Unit 12, at the Graduate School of Architecture, University of Johannesburg—founded by Professor Lesley Lokko, with the intent to create a curriculum for the African continent. She has taught and lectured widely, most recently as Pelli Distinguished Visiting Professor at the School of Architecture, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Vally currently leads a new masters’ programme, Hijra هجرة, at the Royal College of Art and is an Honorary Professor in Practice at The Bartlett School of Architecture.
Dr Omniya Abdel Barr
An architect, historian, and researcher specializing in the art and architecture of the Islamic world, especially in Mamluk Egypt and Syria, Dr Abdel Barr works between Cairo and London. She received her bachelor’s degree in architecture from the Faculty of Fine Arts, Helwan University, Cairo, Egypt, in 2000 and her MSc in the conservation of historic towns and buildings from the Raymond Lemaire International Centre for Conservation, KU Leuven, Belgium, in 2004. In 2015, she was awarded her PhD by the Maison Méditerranéenne des Sciences de l’Homme of Aix-Marseille Université, France, for her thesis on the monuments of Mamluk Cairo and how their construction shaped the city.
Since 2011 she has been documenting the destruction of historic Cairo and has actively campaigned to save the city’s architectural and cultural heritage. She joined the Egyptian Heritage Rescue Foundation (EHRF) in 2014 and began fundraising to support its activities and programs, going on to set up the project “Rescuing the Mamluk Minbars of Cairo” (2018–20), funded by the British Council’s Cultural Protection Fund, which researched and recorded these important structures and restored a number of them. She has also worked to preserve knowledge of Cairo’s traditional arts and crafts and created the EHRF design centre to study and promote these technical skills.
In London, she is the Barakat Trust Fellow at the Victoria and Albert Museum, leading the digitization of the collections of photographs of Islamic architecture taken by Professor K. A. C. Creswell, in collaboration with the American University in Cairo, the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and Harvard University. The work will allow Creswell’s important collections to become more accessible to scholars, particularly to Arabic speakers.
Dr Abdel Barr has worked on a number of other research and conservation projects, including the restoration of the eastern palace and courtyard of the Bayt al-Razzaz in Cairo (2004–6) with the American Research Center in Egypt. In 2013, for the Danish–Egyptian Dialogue Initiative, she curated Sanduq el-Dunia, an interactive digital display of the Cairo cityscape that was presented at the Images Festival in Copenhagen.
Dr Saad Alrashid
Saad Abdul Aziz al-Rashid is pioneering archaeologist and academic focusing on the Islamic history of Saudi Arabia. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in history from King Saud University, Riyadh in 1969, he studied for a PhD at the University of Leeds, presenting his thesis on Darb Zubaydah—the pilgrim road between Kufa and Makkah—in 1977.
Since 1992 he has been professor in Islamic archaeology at the College of Arts, King Saud University, as well as holding other senior posts at that institution, including chair of the Department of Library and Information Science (1989–90) and chair of the Department of Archaeology and Museology (1994–96). Between 1996 and 2005, he was Deputy Minister for Antiquities and Museums, Ministry of Education of Saudi Arabia.
A leading scholar of Islamic archaeology in the Arabian Peninsula and wider Islamic world, he has supervised several excavation campaigns in Saudi Arabia and published extensive archaeological research in Arabic and English, both as sole author and in collaboration with others. His books include Al-Rabadhah: A Portrait of Early Islamic Civilisation in Saudi Arabia (1986), Al-Suwaydira (al-Taraf Qadiman): Atharuha wa Nuqushuha al-Islamiyya (2009)—recording early Islamic inscriptions at the pilgrim station of al-Taraf—and Medieval Routes to Mecca: A Study of the Darb Zubaydah Pilgrim Trail (revised by Peter Webb, 2018). He has participated in a number of academic gatherings, among them the Seminar for Arabian Studies held in London in 2004, where he presented a survey of “The Development of Archaeology in Saudi Arabia.” His work for exhibitions includes editing the catalogue Selected Islamic Inscriptions from Makkah al-Mukarramah and al-Madinah al-Munawwarah (2002).
Dr al-Rashid has received several awards in recognition of his work achievements in recording and conserving the heritage of Saudi Arabia, notably the Ameen Madani Award for Research in the History of the Arabian Peninsula in 1998 and the Abdullah Al-Nuaim Award (Archaeology Section) in 2022. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has also conferred on him the Order of King Abdulaziz (First Class), in 1999, and the King Khaled Medal (Third Degree), in 2020.
Dr Julian Raby
Julian Raby received his bachelor’s degree with honours from Magdalen College at the University of Oxford in 1971 and his doctorate in Oriental studies from the same university in 1981. He was lecturer in Islamic art and architecture at the University of Oxford from 1979 to 2006. For 15 years, from 2002 to 2017, he was director of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, which together form the National Museum of Asian Art at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.
He is the author of numerous publications in the field of Islamic art, including IZNIK: The Pottery of Ottoman Turkey (1989); Turkish Bookbinding in the 15th Century: The Foundation of an Ottoman Court Style (1993); and Qajar Portraits (1999). His research papers cover a wide range of subjects, from Mosul metalwork in the 13th century to the “Classical Revival” in the architecture of Zengid and Ayyubid Syria, and the collections of Jalayirid and Timurid paintings and drawings in the Diez albums. Much of his research touches on cross-cultural themes, as in his book “Venice, Dürer, and the Oriental Mode” (1982) and in his studies of the Greek manuscripts in the library of Mehmed the Conqueror and of the inscriptions on the Pisa Griffin.
Dr Raby has served as curator, concept designer, and consultant for numerous museum exhibitions. These include Iznik: The Pottery of Ottoman Turkey (Istanbul, 1989); Royal Persian Painting: The Qajar Epoch (New York, Los Angeles, and London, 1999); and The Sultan’s Portrait: Picturing the House of Osman (Istanbul, 2000). While at the Smithsonian he oversaw and initiated more than 50 special exhibitions, including the compendious Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th and 17th Centuries (2007); Style & Status: Imperial Costumes from Ottoman Turkey (2005–6); Iraq and China: Ceramics, Trade, and Innovation (2007); and The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts (2016–17).
At Oxford, Dr Raby was the founder and editor of the series Oxford Studies in Islamic Art, and the monographs editor for the British Institute at Amman for Archaeology and History, Jordan. He is also the founder of Azimuth Editions, a publisher in the field of Asian art. For his contributions to promoting the study and appreciation of their artistic traditions, he has received orders of merit from Portugal, the Republic of Türkiye and Japan.
Awwal Bait ‘First House’
In its inaugural edition, the Islamic Arts Biennale celebrates the art of Islam—the art of being a Muslim.
This Biennale explores the timeless rituals that have defined Islam from its beginning through to the present day. These rituals are about movement, sound, and invisible lines of direction.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the custodian of the two Holy Mosques and the sacred landscapes around them, is the spiritual focus for Muslims across the world. Awwal Bait, literally meaning “First House,” refers to the Ka’bah in Makkah al-Mukarramah, the holiest site in Islam.
This Islamic Arts Biennale is situated at the gateway to Makkah, in the historic Hajj Terminal in Jeddah. Designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the terminal opened in 1981 and was the recipient of the 1983 Aga Khan Award for Architecture. Each year this prestigious building welcomes millions of pilgrims making their way to the Ka’bah.
Over the centuries billions of people from around the world have passed through this region, the Hijaz—sharing their rituals, crafts, traditions, and knowledge—making it one of the greatest areas of cultural exchange on Earth.
However diverse Muslims across the globe may be, Awwal Bait, the First House of Allah in Makkah, is in all their hearts, and always present in the daily rituals of worship. This shared source of faith, shared philosophies, and shared sense of belonging unite all Muslims.
The Islamic Arts Biennale juxtaposes contemporary art and historical artifacts as expressions of this sense of belonging—of being at “home,” both at a personal, human level, and on the scale of the infinite and eternal.
The Biennale is organized around two main themes: Qiblah and Hijrah.
Part 1: Qiblah / Sacred Direction
The Qiblah is the direction of the Ka’bah in Makkah, which every Muslim faces in their daily prayers. It unites Muslims in prayer in one collective, planet-wide gathering.
The first part of the Biennale traces a journey toward this shared spiritual focus through daily and yearly Islamic rituals. In a sequence of galleries, historical objects and contemporary artworks offer reflections on these acts of faith.
They begin with the adhan (the call to prayer), traveling ceaselessly across the world with the movement of the sun. Ritual purification prepares Muslims for the practice of daily salah (prayer), whether performed as individuals or in a congregation. The exhibition looks at how the end of life is marked, before culminating in a display of two priceless historical artifacts from the Ka’bah itself.
Part 2: Hijrah / Migration
Hijrah was the journey of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his followers from Makkah to al-Madinah al-Munawwarah, fleeing persecution. This “migration” marked the beginning of the Islamic calendar.
Many migrations in our world are associated with loss and displacement. But they can also be communal celebrations that fortify a sense of universal belonging—bridges between here and elsewhere.
The second part of the Biennale, under the canopy of the Hajj Terminal, presents specially commissioned artworks that reflect on the theme of migration in multiple senses, from the way that culture travels and is exchanged, to how pilgrimage has coloured the cultural life of the Muslim world .
Within the landscape under the canopy, two pavilions showcase rarely seen historical artifacts from the cities of Makkah and Madinah and highlight the role of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as custodian of the holiest sites of Islam.
The Hajj Terminal – a Place Like no Other
A first of its kind in the world, the new building complex for The Islamic Arts Biennale is located at the Western Hajj Terminal at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah. A 1983 Agha Khan Award winner, the Hajj Terminal was designed by the world-renowned international architecture firm SOM in the late 1970s and opened to pilgrims in the early 1980s.
The architectural concept is inspired by the existing tent canopy structures and the traditional courtyard houses of the past.
The complex is composed of volumes of different sizes and proportions arranged around a central courtyard. This is to achieve a variety of formats that can both inspire the artists and be reimagined by them.
The design intertwines with the existing Hajj Terminal, yet expresses an independent visual identity. Instead of competing with the existing canopies, it adopts the existing grid, breaks it down and uses it as the basis of a new expression. The result is that the cluster of volumes resembles fragments escaping an ordered grid.
The site includes:
Approximately 12,000 square meters of gallery and exhibition space, including five main galleries and two standalone pavilions.
A cinema with approximately 200 seats
A multi-purpose event hall
A library and a children’s area
Workshops, as well as seminar and classroom spaces for arts and crafts
Retail, merchandise, and F&B outlets
Outdoor spaces for artwork exhibition, entertainment, and reflection
Visitor and VIP entrance pavilions
Diriyah Biennale Foundation offices
The Biennale provides two main areas for exhibiting artworks and artefacts. The first is a linear sequence of galleries, while the second consists of two pavilions, Makkah and Madinah, and an outdoor area under the award-winning canopy of the Hajj Terminal for the display of artworks and art installations. The filtered sunlight, long vistas and views of sky and desert create a very different experience from the closed galleries of the first part.